Priority Questions

Departmental Reports

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

23. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the reason her Department is not implementing the recommendation of the audit of An Garda Síochána use of section 12 to establish a 24 hour social work service. [31457/17]

My first question for the Minister is to ask the reasons her Department is not implementing the recommendation of the audit of An Garda Síochána use of section 12 to establish a 24 hour social work service.

Along with the Deputy and other Deputies, I very much welcome the report by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon which is an audit of the use of section 12 by An Garda Síochána. He has done a great service to children. He has also done monumental work in terms of what we as policy makers need to do in order to support children in crisis. His report is a comprehensive, thorough analysis of the strengths and deficiencies in our shared approach to child protection. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I will apply this research to our child protection system.

Since the publication of the report I have met Dr. Shannon on two occasions and have had several other communications with him. He has also had intensive engagement with officials in my Department. He has been very generous with his time and his expertise. Together, we have identified an action plan to improve our emergency child protection services.

Specifically, Deputy Rabbitte has asked me about establishing a 24 hour social work service. Following the discussions with Dr. Shannon, the initial steps have been agreed as to how best to implement the recommendation. I have already requested that Tusla examine, as a matter of priority, the level of demand for such a service and identify the most appropriate and child-friendly manner in which supports can be provided when a child needs emergency out-of-hours care. We can probably all agree that the needs of younger children and older adolescents will be different. We need to have a system that recognises this and responds to these differing needs and circumstances.

Last week, I attended a public consultation in the Seanad on mental health services for children. I listened to the testimony of mothers who described the chronic challenges faced by them when they need an urgent out-of-hours emergency service. In my opinion, we need an out-of-hours emergency service which responds to the needs of all children. We need the right response, from the right services at the right time. This should be flexible enough to meet the needs of the individual child and the particular situation. It could involve An Garda Síochána, Tusla social workers, HSE psychiatric professionals and HSE medical teams.

I suppose I am a little at sea in one of the questions I am asking the Minister. What piece of information is missing from Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report? The information is not there. He has written this in the here and now, for example, he wrote in 2014, 2015 and was compiling it up to 2016.

Tusla put in place an out-of-hours service which the report acknowledges is in place. However, while Dr. Shannon was compiling the end of the report, he found serious gaps, including those associated with the 91 cases referenced. What part of the report that is missing suggests we do not need a 24-hour service? What gives a child in rural Ireland, or any part of Ireland, a lesser right to access to a social service worker than a child from any of the other four counties? No child should be denied that right. The Minister is right: Dr. Geoffrey Shannon has produced a comprehensive report. It is probably one of the leading worldwide reports carried out, yet we are saying we do not have enough information.

I indicated in response to the Deputy's question my view on the recommendation of Dr. Shannon which I have agreed to include in my implementation plan. I have asked Tusla to take the first steps. This has been agreed with Dr. Shannon on the most appropriate way to move forward.

The Deputy is aware that we have an out-of-hours service. The Garda has access to a telephone line and live social workers when section 12 is invoked for children in counties Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Cork.

It has been agreed with Dr. Shannon that the most appropriate way to begin the process of responding to his recommendation is to ask Tusla to set out the level of demand by county and age. Most of the demand seems to be in these areas. We need to know whether enough staff are in place and, if not, whether Tusla could add additional social care staff. That is one of the questions. In areas outside counties Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare and Cork seven social workers are available to be called. They receive calls from the national telephone service. It is true that they only go out in situations involving parental death, car crashes, mass tragedy and other special circumstances. In that sense, the service is restricted, but the threshold is being examined in the light of what I have requested Tusla to do. The key is seeing where the demand is and what types of situation and children are involved in order for us to respond appropriately.

I acknowledge that considerable work has been done. The implementation plan agreed with Tusla last week was welcome. I am keen to see the timelines and the reviews to be completed. When will we know the county by county details in respect of the data contained on page 50 of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report? Do we have a timeline in that regard?

Reference was made to 23 social care workers possibly being required to work in strategic divisions within An Garda Síochána. Do we have a timeline in that regard?

Time is of the essence. If we do not put timelines in place, we will encounter problems. Dr. Shannon has invited himself back to the Oireachtas committee next year to indicate how we are making progress. Has the Department of Children and Youth Affairs put timelines in place for delivery in the next 12 months? We need measurable targets.

I have asked those responsible to begin the work and report back to me as soon as possible on the different sections of the implementation plan relating to Tusla's response to Dr. Shannon's report. For example, in respect of the out-of-hours service, on which the Deputy's question focuses, my officials will be meeting representatives of Tusla towards the end of this week to begin the process of looking at page 50, as well as additional issues that, no doubt, are being raised about the table Dr. Shannon has produced. As I said, he has agreed that it is important to do a little more detailed work in that regard to respond appropriately or make recommendations to me to develop an out-of-hours service.

I tried to indicate in my initial response to the Deputy's question my vision. We need an out-of-hours service that is right for the children at the right time and at the right place. I intend to ensure it will be put in place over a period in the light of the recommendations brought forward.

Child Protection

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

24. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to outline her views on whether a full audit of Tusla's child protection responsibilities is required (details supplied), with particular regard to its uses of section 13 of the Child Care Act 1991; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [31345/17]

First, I record my condolences and those of my party to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on her recent loss. I pay tribute to her late wife's extraordinary contribution to Irish life.

Following the recent report by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon and the subsequent "RTE Investigates" programme, does the Minister believe a full audit of Tusla's child protection responsibilities is required, with particular regard to the use of section 13?

I join Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire in offering my condolences to the Minister.

Thank you. I appreciate and accept your condolences. It helps me during this period.

As stated in my previous reply to Deputy Anne Rabbitte, I have developed an implementation plan to address the recommendations made by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon relating to Tusla. They have been agreed with him and are being implemented without delay. Several recommendations relate to the practice and procedures for seeking and using emergency care orders under section 13 of the Child Care Act 1991 to which the Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has referred.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire will be aware of one point, but I believe it is important to highlight it. It was not within Dr. Shannon's terms of reference to review Tusla's actions in his recent report. However, I am strongly of the opinion that, based on the work carried out by him, the next logical step is to conduct a detailed study of how section 13 is implemented by Tusla. I have asked it to commission suitably qualified and experienced researchers to examine this issue in detail.

The research will examine the children's experience of being received, out of normal working hours, into Tusla custody. It will examine Tusla's decision-making process in deciding whether to apply for an emergency care order under section 13. I have asked that the research examine the reasons when a decision is made to return a child to the home from which he or she was removed by the Garda. This was the subject of much commentary. I think it is important that we understand why these decisions are made. The research will also identify where children have been the subject of repeated section 12 interventions and examine the reasons behind them.

I believe the research will provide clarity on the realities for children when sections 12 and 13 are invoked to protect them. The examination of the operation of section 13 will provide an understanding of the reasons staff initiated the actions. It is important that the research and the findings be regarded as a positive and constructive exercise to show us what is working and what is not. First and foremost, the purpose is to help us to provide the best possible response for children when they are taken into the custody of Tusla in emergencies.

I thank the Minister for her response. I will return to that aspect of the matter. As the Minister is aware, we have had debates at the committee in recent weeks. Mr. McBride and Dr. Geoffrey Shannon were before it. Several differences in emphasis and perhaps in detail emerged in the contributions made by both gentlemen to the committee. I wish to flag some particular issues about which I want to ask the Minister specifically. Is she committed to implementing the recommendations of the Shannon report? The big issue in terms of the discrepancies in the report was the lack of a proper 24-hour service. The answer cannot simply be the provision of a telephone line. I believe it is possible to provide such a service and it should not be dictated by demand. Much of the exercise has already been carried out in respect of where the demand is.

Will the Minister tackle the excessive reliance on private placement organisations that have the ability to refuse children? One consequence of this practice is that we see children still being referred to this day to Garda stations. That is entirely unsuitable. What will the Minister do to ensure the inter-agency co-operation which was described as poor and superficial can be improved?

As I indicated, I put in place a comprehensive response to the recommendations made in Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report as a result of meetings and an agreement with him on the initial way to proceed in that regard.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire's last question was on inter-agency co-operation. Several aspects in this regard will be examined and reported on to me in ensuring better inter-agency co-operation. In particular, we will examine the Garda and Tusla and what is going on in terms of the strategic liaison committees, the membership of which comprises representatives of the Garda and Tusla.

Another question was related to co-location and whether we needed the physical presence of gardaí and Tusla staff working together.

Initially, co-location will be piloted, following which consideration will be given to how it can work better such that in other settings, including at national level, we can have a co-location of Tusla and Garda to ensure a better response to the children invoked in terms of section 12.

I recognise that Tusla's job is difficult and that it inherited a difficult situation. As I have previously noted, we have an unhappy history of child protection in this State. Issues are still regularly being raised in regard to weaknesses in our child protection services. For this reason, I called some weeks ago in this House for a full audit of the child protection system.

I noted with interest an announcement on the airwaves of a review or a piece of research into the section 13 cases. I welcome this. I believe we need a transformation of our child protection services and a roadmap along the lines of A Vision for Change to achieve it. In regard to the independent research, I believe it should be independent of Tusla and that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs should have oversight of it. It must have access to social work files, Courts Service reports, where relevant, and it should have a broad terms of reference, with the potential to expand beyond section 13 cases, if necessary and appropriate. Also, Tusla should not have a veto over its recommendations. That is important. Is this the type of audit the Minister envisages?

Yes, and it will be independent. The progress of commissioning the independent research has already commenced. I agree with Deputy Ó Laoghaire that in terms of understanding social work decision-making it would be helpful to have social work input. The chair of the board of Tusla has responded to my request to commission that independent piece of research and is currently putting it in place.

In regard to the Deputy's call for a wider audit, there are two points I would like to make. It is important to note that the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has inspected all of the Tusla child protection services, including how social workers' respond to children in emergency. All actions identified by HIQA are being implemented. HIQA and Tusla report any outstanding issues to my Department. All of their inspections reports are published. In regard to the statutory investigation that I directed HIQA to have carried out under section 9 of the Health Act, the Deputy should look again at the terms of reference as they relate to the handling of child sex abuse allegations, which at my request provide that if in the course of that piece of research there are reasonable grounds to believe that there are further or other serious risks to children or persons receiving services these should be reported to HIQA or to me as Minister. There are many ways in respect of which Tusla is currently under scrutiny, some of which were put in place by me. I must wait until these have been completed and reported to me, when I will then consider what further action might be necessary.

Child Care Services Funding

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

25. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date by which she plans to have the single affordable child care scheme operational, including measures to include childminders as eligible providers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [31458/17]

Does the Minister have a date by which the single affordable child care scheme will be operational and what measures are being introduced to include childminders as eligible providers?

Children, parents and families will start enjoying the benefit of our radical new approach to child care from September. An additional €19 million will be available to an estimated 70,000 children. This is a first big step, one from which there can be no row back.

All children aged between six and 36 months, or until they are eligible for the free preschool scheme, will be eligible for some level of support totalling approximately €1,040 per annum. In addition, there will be targeted child care supports for those who need it most. In particular, I want to offer support to parents who cannot take up work, training or education because they cannot afford child care. However, changing one of the world’s most expensive child care systems into the best system is not easy.

Our goals are ambitious, as they must be if we are to deliver genuine affordable accessible quality child care.

Despite the changes in September, some of which I referred to in regard to the affordable child care scheme, there are still challenges to delivery of the new scheme. Developing the high-tech part of our new approach is not easy. As well as technical issues, there are data protection and other legal requirements which must be met. The systems we are building now will last generations. We simply cannot afford to get this wrong. Strong progress is being made and I will update Deputies as we progress.

When it comes to our children there can be no compromise on safety. Parents must be assured that their children are being cared for in a safe environment. For this reason, the financial supports on offer can only go to those providers where quality is assured. The affordable child care scheme will be delivered through Tusla-registered providers, centre-based or childminders. A report has been requested from an expert group on how the childminding sector can be developed to meet appropriate quality standards. This report will inform future policy.

I acknowledge Deputies' support and their input. I hope I will continue to have their support as I seek more child care funding in budget 2018.

I thank the Minister. I, too, acknowledge that this is not an easy process. This time last year, I asked the Minister for an update on the ICT system. I understand roll-out of this scheme is being held up because it is not up to standard. What is the status of the ICT project at this point, which was supposed to be in place for August 2018. What is the current timeline in this regard?

I understand that 70,000 children will benefit under this scheme but that there are 9,000 families which do not make the cut in terms of eligibility for it. These families do not qualify for the GP services card either. What is the Department doing to assist the 9,000 families who will lose out on €12 per week? What is being done to assist that sector?

I thank Deputy Rabbitte for her questions, which provide me with an opportunity to clarify the situation. In regard to the 9,000 families which may not be able to participate in the full affordable child care scheme vision, which we hope will be the best in the world and will be less expensive, the figure of 9,000 is an estimate. We are being upfront and honest in terms of our first effort to put in place mechanisms through which parents can access substantially more subsidies as and from September 2017. It is important to get that message out. For parents wishing to determine to what extent they can access those subsidies all the information in that regard is available on www.affordablechildcare.ie. We have initiated a huge information campaign for parents. We are also travelling the country with a roadshow to ensure providers have that information. As we move towards the roll-out of an affordable child care scheme from September, which is a significant step, parents will have the information to determine how they can access it.

What is the status of the legislation for the single affordable child care scheme? As the committees will be going into recess in two weeks' time, I presume the scheme will not be in place before the end of the summer. Also what engagement or work is being done by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners in relation to that legislation? As I understand it, legislative change is required in terms of the remit of the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners in relation to this scheme. Each time we try to move forward on the child care issue we are hit with the road block of legislation. This has certainly been the case during the past 12 months. Perhaps the Minister will outline the timeline in regard to the ICT system.

I am, again, grateful to the Deputy for these questions. In terms of the legislation and the ICT, the Deputy will be aware that I will be before the committee discussing these issues in more detail before this session ends. In regard to the ICT, we are in a process.

The development of the ICT infrastructure for the affordable child care scheme has gone into what is called a peer review process in the context of the development of complicated systems within the Oireachtas that are helpful to ensure that, ultimately, we get it right, even though it takes time. We have begun a significant part of the process. A number of steps have been gone through already. The business case is currently being reviewed. Work on the business support requirements is under way and the functional requirements specification will be finalised by the end of June. We have done some data sharing requirements with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection. Those have been finalised with the plan for the ICT system, and this links with the development in that respect. For example, the Department of Social Protection has agreed to host the affordable child care scheme, ACS, data. I could go on. There are a number of ways in which the different Departments are working very closely with us, both in terms of ICT and data protection, to ensure we get it right.

Question No. 26 is in the name of Deputy Smith. She cannot make it to the Chamber and could not get one of her colleagues to be here, but I am sure we can agree that if she comes into the Chamber in the next five minutes, we will let her ask the question.

Question No. 26 replied to with Written Answers.

School Completion Programme

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

27. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans on the future of the school completion programmes; the status of the employment audit; and the status of SCP as a community strategy response as identified in the ESRI report. [31241/17]

My question is regarding the school completion programmes. I seek the Minister's views on the status of the employment audit and the school completion programme as a community response strategy, as outlined in the ESRI report.

The ESRI review, to which the Deputy refers was, as she is aware, conducted in 2015. It recognised the important role that the school completion programme plays in working with children at risk of dropping out of school. However, the review also highlighted the need for a fit for purpose structure with effective governance and employment models in place. The report suggested that the governance and employment structures adopted by Tusla will be key in meeting the future objectives of the programme nationally.

Following the ESRI review Tusla commissioned an employment audit, which is what the Deputy's question is about, to be carried out to examine the issues raised in the review. The employment audit pointed to important issues regarding the employment status of the school completion programme staff around the country. For example, some 55% of staff had no employment contract or inappropriate employment contracts.

In response to the employment audit, Tusla's educational welfare service undertook a series of initial steps to address these matters. First, a specialist firm was contracted to provide human resources and industrial relations advice and support to the local management committee chairpersons and school completion programme co-ordinators. This firm is providing an ongoing 24/7 service via phone. Second, a suite of appropriate contract templates was developed by a specialist human resource firm, to be used by the local management committees for the various full and part-time positions on school completion programmes. Third, governance training for local management committees and school completion programme co-ordinators has been provided by The Wheel, which is now complete. Fourth, Foróige was contracted to conduct a staff learning needs analysis. This was followed by a continuous professional development programme in response to the training needs identified. Foróige also provided day to day management of the school completion programme nationally on behalf of Tusla's educational welfare service for a short period. This was to allow Tusla to reinforce the structure of its educational welfare service by hiring additional resources.

The board of Tusla has also considered a number of other options to address the governance and employment issues. An expert panel has been put in place to consider those options in detail and it will be reporting to me in due course.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I have been contacted by school completion programme co-ordinators who are concerned about the audit and about not having heard fully from the audit people as to what is envisaged. There are rumours about closures and amalgamations. They are into the holiday season now and will return at the end of August. I want to acknowledge the great work the school completion programmes do and the gaps they filled in the recession years when there was a loss of language teachers and visiting and resource teachers for Travellers and the way in which they supported after-school clubs, business in the community and team parenting programmes. I sometimes wonder when audits are carried out by outside agencies if they get a good sense of the work that is being done on the ground, particularly given that we are talking about very disadvantaged areas. Is the Minister committed to the school completion programme as a strategy to address educational disadvantage?

I thank the Deputy for her question. I am fully committed to the school completion programme as a strategy to address ways in which we can support our young people to stay in school, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

Regarding the audit which was conducted a while ago, I have described a number of steps that have been put in place working with school completion programmes on the ground during the past year and a half in order to begin to provide the support that will be required to ensure their effectiveness as we move forward. The employment and contract issues are serious. I appreciate there are rumours and concerns about what is happening. A process has been put in place to support them on the ground. I also put in place an expert panel, comprising officials from my Department and from the Department off Public Expenditure and Reform and Education and Skills and senior staff from Tusla, which is chaired by the CEO of Tusla. It is examining various issues with respect to the way to put in place the best model for the school completion programme in order that we can move beyond the employment and governance concerns and effectively ensure that our children stay in school as long as possible.

I acknowledge the progress that has been made in the retention figures and in the progression to third level. However, both the Minister and I represent constituencies where progression to third level is way below the national average. School completion programmes play a role in that respect. When an audit is carried out or new measures are being introduced, there must be engagement with the people working on the ground and we must have their involvement at all levels. I am referring to the school completion programme co-ordinators and the people who support them in the schools. Sometimes they get lost in audits and reports as we move forward. With respect to what has emerged now and the plans for the future, I ask that the school completion programme co-ordinators are involved in that process and that they will be engaged with on every aspect of that. That is my ask, namely, that from today they will have direct input into that process as we go forward.

My understanding is that they have been not involved only in terms of the review but perhaps, more importantly, subsequent to it in the various steps that Tusla has put in place and various training and engagement that is under way throughout the different programmes throughout the country. If the Deputy has information that this is not happening, I would be very keen to be aware of it. The Deputy can talk to me, write to me or email me about that. I completely agree with her that they should be the ones who are informing the process. My understanding is that they have had that opportunity. This group is meeting. We are trying to review what are the best elements that should be in place in terms of the best model and moving it forward. If I have any concerns whatsoever that the people on the ground have not been sufficiently informed of that, I will certainly find other ways to ensure that they are.